INGENIOUS MARKET HUNTERS OF THE SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY
Bull hunting or steer hunting as it was also called emanated from the Mexicans, with the technique laying dormant for years until being resurrected in the San Joaquin Valley of California. There the bull hunter’s outfit consisted of a wagon and team, and bull hunters made use of trained horses, cows, or steers, preferably the latter, to get close to wary birds. A good animal could be taught all the tricks of bull hunting and be ready for reliable work in the field in three weeks, eventually having the instincts of a fox.
The color of the bull hunter’s clothing matched the color of their animal. His cap was also of the prevailing shade of the animal, and if his animal was red and white he sported a red and white sweater. The sweater was nearly always a part of his get-up, since it came in all colors. He usually wore old jeans, which had faded to a half tone and hip boots of rubber, which from contact with the adhesive San Joaquin slough water had become a yellow gray, the color of the soil.
The most important part of the outfit was the gun and its ammunition. The object of the bull hunter was to pot as many birds as possible at a shot, since he was limited to two shots. He used an old muzzleloader; therefore, today one would have to be raked out of the ancestral attic. The barrels were sawed off to a length of 22 or 24 inches to make the weapon manageable behind the animal. The metal was considerably thicker than that of today’s 12-gauge shotgun. Such a gun weighed 15 to 25 pounds, to the seven or so pounds of the then modern shotgun. If it was a ten-bore or an eight-bore or six or four, it carried a four or five finger load, in bull hunter’s parlance, of ten to 15 drams of black powder and two to four ounces of shot. Nitro powder was taboo with the muzzleloader.
The method of the bull-shot was simple. Morning found the bull hunters, most of whom camped for the season in the game fields, issuing forth in wagons, each with his cow or steer tied to the shaft. They anchored their wagon once they got within 600 yards of their prey or closer if they dared or experience dictated. A bull hunter then took out his field glass and spied the area for waterfowl. The hunters, under cover of the steer and always keeping to the windward side of their game, walked along on the offside of the trained animals. The lead hunter, if there were two hunters, pushed the animal forward with fist and shoulder. Taking pressure of the fist and shoulder off the animal told the animal to lower its head and graze for a moment, before resuming the process of “tacking” during the bull-hunting expedition, each tack bringing them nearer their game. Taking a direct approach toward the birds would have alerted them, but taking this indirect approach rendered them unsuspecting.
Working up a shot, they kept this tacking up, making every attempt to bunch or “bank” the birds as much as possible, maneuvering the steer to get within a short distance, usually 30 yards, of the ducks or geese, in order to get a “center shot at the flock.” When properly located, the bull hunters stalking a bank cocked their guns and gave a slight thump into the ribs of the animal—a double signal to the animal that a shot was about to happen and the animal had learned to stand firm during the firing, more steady than a bird dog or horse, while some animals had been taught to take a few quick steps forward, thus exposing the hunter or the two hunters who were ready to shoot. With the animal out of the way, they immediately turned their artillery loose on the ducks or geese. Each hunter got one shot while the birds were on the ground and another as they rose, potting from 20 to 80 at each shot. However, larger shots were made. Some animals were trained to stay still while the single hunter rested his gun on the animal’s back, alerting the animal that he was about to fire his two shots.
An outdoor magazine writer at Merced in December 1906 saw one of these bull hunter, hunting alone, make the prize shot of 125 birds at one killing. The tacking lasted anywhere from half an hour to often times a half day in order to get within the desired 30 feet of the birds. Even so, it paid the market hunter infinitely more than a full day in a blind. There were 40 or 50 of these trained steers in the neighborhood at any given time, each team shipping a dray load of birds market every day. A trained steer often sold for $300.
Generally, when tacking and banking the birds and when the hunters and steer got within 100 yards of the ducks or geese, their suspicions were allayed and they paid no more attention to them. However, if the steer ever disappeared out of sight of the geese, such as going behind a river bank for a few moments, and then coming back into view of the birds, the birds would flush. The same would often happen if the hunters’ legs got out of line with the animals legs, thus exposing themselves to the wary birds.
The success of the bull shot depended almost entirely upon the training and discipline of the cow or steer. The animal was said by the hunters to be much more intelligent and docile than the horse and displayed a real knowledge of what was expected of it. The hunter and his steer were on terms of closest friendship and trust, and, deservedly so, for the former treated his steer with all the consideration due a lady, and the latter took a personal interest in the success of the bull shot. The steer was usually trained at the age of two years by the use of a wire attachment at the base of the horns, to which was fastened a rope by means of a ring, allowing it to slip easily from side to side. This arrangement allowed the hunter to manage his animal from either side without exposing himself.
The bank, in the early days, was often worked by two men at once which doubled the bag. Most bull hunters used a No. 2-, 4-, or 6-gauge double barrel shotgun. However, when California law made it illegal to use any gauge larger than a ten-bore, many of the market hunters side-stepped the law by using a remarkable weapon consisting of a stock to which four barrels were fitted. A four-barrel shotgun had to be custom made, with the barrels sawed off to 22 to 24 inches. Two barrels were fired with a pull of one of the two trigger, while some discharged all four barrels with the pull of a single trigger.
A few bull hunters had a six barreled shotgun, three barrels being discharged at a time by one hammer. Such a gun was usually patched together by the hunter himself out of several old ones. Each barrel was loaded nearly to the muzzle, and the effect on the hunter was a recoil which sent him backward six feet or knocked him flat. As a consequence, with a six-barrel, the bull hunter developed a unique shooting attitude. He made his first shot, on the sitting birds, strongly braced with his knees nearly to the ground. The first recoil resulting from three barrels being discharged together sent him to the standing position, and the second, when the birds were flushed, tumbled him on his back.
Hunting by means of an animal blind was first discouraged by the establishment of a bag limit of 25 birds; but for several years the difficulty of apprehending the violator and the practical impossibility of procuring a conviction after his apprehension prevented the elimination of bull hunting. Then, too, the men employing this method of hunting continually threatened the lives of those who attempted to enforce the law. Several shooting frays between game deputies and bull hunters took place near Los Banos, and on November 29,1914 game warden, George Rodolph, was killed there while attempting to make an arrest.
After the law prohibiting bull hunting for ducks was passed, this sort of hunting was still continued with the bull hunter escaping conviction by claiming that he was bull hunting for geese when in reality he was hunting ducks. Another way they escaped apprehension was that the bull hunter hitched two horses to a light cart, one of which could be unhitched and used as a movable blind. The harness was so adjusted that this horse could be instantly hitched up again should anyone be seen approaching.
It was not until 1915, when all hunting with animal blinds was prohibited, and the market for birds was largely destroyed by the elimination of the illegally formed game transfer companies in San Francisco, that bull hunting became a thing of the past.